By Caroline Latta
As humans, we sometimes have very specific visions of what we want our gardens to look like. We work to keep the “good” plants in while tossing the “bad” ones out. However, this is a foreign concept in nature. Every plant has an important role in the ecosystem – a weed is only a weed by name, not by scientific definition. These plants can be tasty to eat, used as medicine, or important for pollinators. There are several common “weeds” that we frequently notice in our organic garden at the Nature Center, and many of them have some little-known functions that we will be shining a light on today.
Pokeberry, also known as pokeweed, is best known for its bright pink stems and deep purple berries. This herb was used by Native Americans as a treatment for rheumatism, a dye for their war ponies, and as ink during the Civil War. It has also been used for a wide range of medicinal purposes and is currently being studied for use in cancer treatment and HIV/AIDS prevention.
Purslane is an edible succulent herb with leaves that are crisp and tart. It has been called a “miracle plant” due to its especially high Omega-3 fatty acid levels. It is commonly eaten in places like Crete and Uzbekistan, and was a popular food item in Early America. It has taken some time, but Purslane is finally coming back in style as a salad ingredient served in fancy restaurants in Washington, Baltimore, and beyond.
Wood sorrel is an edible plant with small, heart-shaped leaves that grow in groups of three. Commonly mistaken for clovers, this plant is sometimes called “sourgrass” due to its oxalic acid content. This acid, also found in other common vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, can be dangerous in large quantities and for people with gout, rheumatism, and kidney stones. However, in small doses, it is an excellent salad seasoning and can even be brewed as tea.
Porcelain berry vines are a close relative of the grapevine. They produce clusters of berries that vary in color as they mature, including white, pink, lavender, blue, and black. Critters such as birds and squirrels love to eat these colorful berries, but they are inedible to humans. While this is a beautiful plant to look at, it definitely does not belong in your salad!
Redbud trees are quite popular in residential gardens due to their modest size and ability to thrive in a wide range of conditions. In the spring, clusters of flower buds bloom into beautiful bright pink flowers all over the tree. Redbud blossoms are edible and have a citrusy taste that will never fail to brighten up a meal. In addition, the unopened buds are a good caper substitute when pickled. If you see one of these sprouting in your garden bed, consider digging it up with your trowel and transplanting it to another location in your yard where it will have space to grow into a full-sized redbud tree.